Library program covers baseball history, manliness, inner-city teaching
When John Liepa was a kid growing up in Des Moines, he delivered newspapers to have cash for comic books and baseball cards. When he wasn’t playing baseball — with a few made-up rules — on the playground, he was bartering with friends for baseball cards, carefully traded or bought for nickels and dimes.
Decades later, he’s bought, traded, displayed and sold hundreds of thousands of baseball cards. He carted a fraction of them to the Mary J. Barnett Memorial Library in Guthrie Center Saturday — along with the stories behind them, of the 221 Iowans who played in the major leagues and the seven Iowans who made it to the Hall of Fame.
Liepa’s presentation was part of a baseball program offered Saturday, a complement to the Smithsonian traveling exhibition, “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America,” which will be on display at the Guthrie Center library through Aug. 5.
He estimated that of the 221 Iowans who played in the major leagues — even if they threw just one pitch or were at bat just once, they’re counted — he has cards for about 175 of them. For some, there are no cards in existence.
Liepa spoke to visitors about Cal McVey, born in 1849 in Montrose, Iowa, one of the first Iowans to ever play in the major leagues.
He introduced Adrian “Cap” Anson: an exceptional player-manager, the first player to get 3,000 hits — and one of the people who set African-American players even more behind. After yelling out the n-word during a game against a team with two African-American players, Anson refused to schedule games with teams that included African-American players, as well as teams who played other teams that weren’t all-white.
“Anson does deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” Liepa said. “He’s a reflection of what America was like in that time — but it’s unfortunate that it happened.”
In addition to sharing stories of many other players, Liepa dispelled a few myths — such as the one that baseball was invented in America, or by any one person. Rather, he said, it evolved during the course of many years from earlier, more primitive games around the world.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for the U.S. to worry about if an American invented baseball,” he said.
He also talked about how the game’s equipment has changed through the years. Way back when, no one used gloves to catch balls.
“It wasn’t manly to wear a glove,” Liepa said. “You wanted your knuckles to be bloody, your fingers broken. Bloody, bruised — that was the sign of being a man. A real stupid man, but still.”
Saturday’s baseball program also included a display set up by Bill Krejci of Ankeny, who played baseball in college and then coached high school and college baseball in Creston before becoming a USA Baseball coach.
One of the most thrilling moments for him was the 2009 Pan American championship games, when the U.S. team took home the gold.
“Anytime you go to Latin American countries, it’s a lot of competition,” Krejci said. “And you always have to beat Cuba.”
That year, they did.
These days, Krejci also is involved with USA Baseball’s new “Fun at Bat” program, through which he takes curriculum and training into elementary schools, teaching teachers how to teach young kids baseball. In addition to teaching the sport, the program uses baseball as a metaphor to teach kids eight “championship principles” — responsibility, teamwork, helping others, honesty, doing your best, leadership, never giving up and being supportive.
It’s a vital program for young students whose parents can’t afford to sign them up for a sports team, Krejci said.
“This is an invitation to bring baseball to kids who can’t reach out and bring baseball to themselves,” he said.
For now, since Major League Baseball is a sponsor of the program, it’s being carried out in Major League cities, but Krejci hopes to see it expand to smaller cities and rural areas in the future.
He said he appreciated the chance to attend the Guthrie Center program and to supplement the Smithsonian display.
“When they called, there was no doubt I was coming,” Krejci said.
A final event will be held to accompany the Smithsonian display — a University of Iowa day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. It’ll include a tailgate party, food and kids’ games. Kent Stephenson, who coached football in Iowa for 18 years, will be in attendance. The Smithsonian display also will be open for viewing from 1 to 4 p.m. July 22, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 28, 1 to 4 p.m. July 29, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 4 and 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 5.